Suing YouTube commenters is all the rage. Hot on the heels of the news that a Manhattan judge has ruled that Google must turn over the names of anonymous YouTube commenters to former model Carla Franklin, we have another case involving legal action against users of the video site.
There’s a bit of back-story involved, so please bear with me. Back in July a video surfaced on YouTube of protesters at the G20 conference in Toronto. The video went viral because of a slightly over-the-top threat from police officer Adam Josephs to a female protester who was blowing bubbles at the him: “If the bubble touches me, you’re going to be arrested for assault.” Even the female police officer in the video seems shocked to hear the man say this. Here’s the video:
The Internet was quick to dub him Officer Bubbles, a moniker that he was, understandably, not fond of. Parody videos were created and uploaded, including a cartoon where a similarly-named police officer arrests a woman for assault because he was “touched by your expression of love.” (That’s pretty funny, actually). And, as YouTube commenters are prone to do, many people left remarks further mocking the officer.
But rather than learn a valuable lesson in saying silly things on camera, the officer in question has decided to go after a couple of YouTube commenters for their remarks on the video. One such user wrote: “Officer bubbles probably looks at himself in the mirror a lot.”
Really? That’s a lawsuit-worthy comment? I’m struggling to even find much of an insult in that sentence, and yet Officer Josephs was so offended that he’s getting legal. But it might not be necessary, because that commenter is actually willing to out himself. In an interview with the Toronto Star, the man—one Todd Mara—reveals his true identity, and talks about how frivolous he believes the lawsuit to be:
“I don’t know why this guy wants to draw more attention to himself. I can’t figure it out. It’s ridiculous. I mentioned, according to what I saw in the video, that he’s an egomaniac. I stand by what I did. I thought he was out of line.”
All told, they’re going after at least 26 YouTube commenters’ identities and have even sued YouTube themselves for hosting the parody videos—those parodies have since been taken offline.
This case is markedly different from Carla Franklins in one key area: Officer Josephs wasn’t really defamed. Parody is fairly well protected as free speech, and though I can’t see the cartoon spoof videos now that they’ve been taken down, everything I’ve read about them puts them right in line with the definition of parody. Most Saturday Night Live sketches and late night talk show monologues are more biting in their criticism of public personalities than this kind of thing. And calling someone’s narcissism into question isn’t legally as dangerous as suggesting sexual impropriety.
But the case does keep this issue in the headlines and push it further into the public debate over anonymity online. Does free speech come with the inherent right to privacy? Should anonymity be abolished online? There’s a certain argument for that, considering that most things taking place online would not allow for similar anonymity were they taking place in the real world. However, it might be too late. Those who wish to remain unidentified have enjoyed the ability to do so in comments, chat-rooms, and other online venues for decades.
It certainly seems like the issue is gaining steam and will only grow larger in the coming months. I’ll be keeping my eye on this story to see how YouTube reacts, and what Officer Josephs and his attorneys decided to do with any information they retrieve.